Quick disclaimer: when I wrote this, I wasn’t planning on publishing it here. I spent some time pondering if I should publish it. It’s long, not about travelling. Nobody will be interested. But then, again, what the hell. This is my safe space and perhaps others would relate. This story doesn’t have an ending yet, but I’m making sure it ends with a smile.
It was on the the 26th of March of 2020. It’s been a year since I’ve been back to Portugal. Insane. Unbelievable. How come all of our plans just disappeared into thin air, taken away from us without a say. It’s been a hell of a year. A story for me to tell, that is the story of many others.
I remember clearly the days before the lockdown. There was a strange electrical energy in the air. While we knew the pandemic was coming, with Italy amidst a chaotic and deadly mess, in the streets of London, there was an atmosphere of denial. It was as if the city was laughing nervously at me. Knowing the catastrophe was coming, but adopting the Keep Calm and Carry On motto as I hadn’t seen before.
I clearly remember the last meeting I had in a client’s office. We were all talking about it. But we couldn’t imagine what was to come. We couldn’t bring ourselves to see it, because we didn’t want to. It wasn’t that serious. The media were making it look like it was the end of the world. I didn’t quite believe this virus was worse than the flu. I wouldn’t swallow it. It was ridiculous, thinking back.
I have this very clear memory of exiting my client’s office in the West End. The air was crisp, chilly, and it was sunny.
I could hear that nervous giggling.
I went back home, to my little rented room in a shared flat, and started reading the news. It hit me suddenly that I was probably wrong. That this was serious. I read about an exhausted nurse in Italy, working hours while sick, and that left me paralyzed. I included myself in the problem. I keep going to work in an office, putting myself and others in danger of this unknown virus. What the hell am I doing? And do I really think I won’t have to cancel my then scheduled trips to Norway, Italy and Japan? Oh silly, naive me. You stupid millennial.
The next day I went to the office, not feeling so good. I had barely slept, and probably looked tired. My boss approached me.
“Nic, you are concerned, aren’t you?” he asked me. I stared at him, probably in a crazed gaze.
“We need to do something. We need to go home and work from there“, I ended up saying.
On that same afternoon, he told us to leave the office early. The lockdown hadn’t been in place yet. It was Thursday, the 12th of March. And we were going to work from home the following Friday. We’d be informed about thow the next few days would be.
I think we all thought that it was going to be a thing of two weeks. Shorty, the virus would be under control, it would all be okay, and we’d be all laughing about it.
Still, when we left the office that afternoon, I turned to my colleagues, and said “well guys, have a good life“. It sounded very dramatic, but I have a known streak for the drama. We all laughed nervously, following the rhythm of the city.
I didn’t know what I said would be so prophetic. Until today I have only seen my colleagues through a webcam. Some of them I won’t see again.
For two weeks, I slept, worked, ate, exercised within the four walls of my room. London is expensive, and in the four years I had been living there, I had opted for flatshares as a way to save money. Actually, 2020 was the year I was finally getting my own place. But I hadn’t taken the leap yet. And, as you can imagine, I couldn’t continue to live like that.
The lockdown was announced just a few days later. With no gyms, I started going for runs after work. Avoiding public transport, I was constrained to walks within my neighborhood. But I had no one to talk to, couldn’t go anywhere. A week had gone by and I felt my mind was about to crack. My parents told me that was probably best if I went back to Portugal, at least until things calmed down.
“No way“, I said determined. A part of me didn’t want to abandon the city. To run away. To just give up.
But then another week went by. My boss announced that our office would cease to exist. The physical space. They would cancel the contract, as it didn’t seem possible we would go back so soon. I can say that I’m thankful our work wasn’t affected by the pandemic. Quite the opposite. But at the time, we didn’t know, and things just looked too unstable. So cutting some costs as a preventive measure was only reasonable.
Reality hit again. The office would be gone.
And when would we have another….How much longer could I endure living like that? My desk and chair were killing my back. I didn’t have any clear separation of work and personal life. No one to talk to. Nowhere to go. To escape. And the supermarkets didn’t have any food. Alone in a tiny room, I started to feel irrational panic. The news were driving me crazy, and the reality outside… it was insane.
Perhaps my parents were right. Perhaps I should go back to Portugal at least for a couple months. I would stay in a house, with a garden, a backyard. With more than one room. Having the company of my cat and dog. It looked very appealing. But borders were closing. Fear crept over me. If I didn’t rush, I could miss my chance.
So I called my boss to make sure it was good for me to work from abroad. He supported it. He knew some of us were in difficult situations. So I booked a flight for two days later and packed a backpack – how many things would I really need, if I wouldn’t leave the house? And, in my mind, I was only going to stay in Portugal for two months.
I had a Korean flatmate at that point (who had actually just moved in the month before and was considering going back to Korea as well…) who kindly gave me a couple of her masks. At the time, there were no such things being sold to the public. She actually gave me two masks. A cloth mask, reusable, and a surgical one. “Put this one on at the airport and for the flight. It will protect you against covid“, she advised me, pointing at the surgical mask. Always trust the Koreans on this. I will probably never see her again. We didn’t even exchanged numbers. All I know is that she did go back to Korea in the end. I hope she’s doing okay.
I got a Uber and off I was to Heathrow Airport.
I felt miserable. It felt I was running away. I didn’t want to leave my beloved London. And yet I felt I didn’t really have a choice. And when I got to the airport…saints.
I had been to Heathrow many, many, many times. In so many different hours of the day and night. And I had never seen it like that.
I never lived through war, but what I was seeing around me was what I imagined a war scenario to be like. It was nearly empty. Just some expats like myself going back to their countries. All shops, restaurants and coffee shops closed.
Such a loud silence. And so empty.
My heart sank. What was this. I couldn’t believe I was witnessing such a thing. It looked unreal. It was in fact a living nightmare. Suddenly, I missed the crowds. The people running around, to catch a flight. The families exhausted with their kids. The queues to get coffee or some overpriced airport food. Having to sit on the floor, because all seats were taken.
So I did the only thing I could do. I stocked up in books from the only convenience store open. It was so good to feel the weight of those paperbacks in my arms. I felt the comfort of the pages in my fingertips. I could escape to those pages. I could choose a different reality for a few weeks. Those two months. Or what I thought would only be two months.
Spoiler alert, it wasn’t only two months. Those two months, became six. Summer came and there was hope things would improve, but again I think we were once again in denial. So, I gave up my room in London and arranged for my things to be sent to Portugal. When everything arrived, my heart sank again. Almost five years of my life transported from London to this place. The place I had grown up in. But it didn’t feel good at all.
And it still doesn’t. It is still too unreal. I adapted, I always do. I adapted easily to working from home, my productivity also increased. It took longer, but I adapted to being back to live with my parents (okay, not entirely true, this is still a bit of a struggle, but it’s better than a year ago), I adapted by finding new ways of working out to keep me sane. I adapted by finding new ways to spend my weekends that did not involve travelling or exploring new art galleries and bookshops in London. That did not involve alcoholic brunches on Sundays, or beautiful walks in Hyde Park.
The Following Months
I tried to find “new occupations”. In the first weeks at home, I started to bake cakes (I don’t like to cook, so this was quite unusual for me). Then, I went back to painting, something I used to do before university and adult life getting in the way. When things opened up in summer I went in some domestic trips to parts of Portugal. I enjoyed weekends reading at the beach. I kept telling myself I was happy with the small pleasantries of life. I did go to Madeira island in September. I was never the kind of person who constantly changes her looks. But I painted my hair in three different colours in less than a year. And no, this is not good.
And I still didn’t (don’t) feel like myself. How could I? I was (am) working too much. I had (have) nothing to look forward to. I was (am) just surviving everyday. Not living. Quoting one of my favourite lines of Shakespeare in Love, This is not life, it’s a stolen season.
It’s exactly how it feels. Our time was stolen. Priceless, irreplaceable time. Time I’ve been spending adapting to survive. Time I’ve been spending feeling guilty about my privilege. Feeling guilty about feeling bad.
Yes. Guilt. While some were overworking and exposing themselves to danger, I was comfortably working from home. Whole some had lost jobs or their salary decreased due to furlough, I was still working full time and getting my salary. While some didn’t have the choice to escape somewhere else, I did. And I still couldn’t shake that sick feeling in my gut.
So at some mind, my mind really did crack. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read. I felt utterly uninspired. All I did was work. Work. Work. Worrying about work. Because I had nothing much else going on. I was even craving just hanging out with people. Just being able to talk about something that wasn’t work. Yet, the few times I had opportunity to do so, nothing came out. I lost practice. I got exhausted.
I think it is always hard when you lose hope. And I did. Why exactly? I don’t know. I’ve always been someone who hates not being in control. Who doesn’t like to be surprised. I fear surprises, because it is not usually good. Everything I can’t control tends to go wrong.
I’m a deep believer in Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
It was about the end of January that I started to get better. This time I had some help from meds, which I learnt it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I started to write again. To read more. And looking at pictures of my previous trips wasn’t making me depressed, but proud of what I had done and achieved.
Still, I can’t believe it’s been a whole year. And while I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m hopeful. However, instead of putting that hope in anyone or anything else, I’m instead nurturing a hope for myself. I guess that’s what I can control. So, I will continue to try.
I know this story of mine is the story of so many more. We can see it as it being bad or as it being good. Being bad, because I don’t wish to anyone the kind of internal turmoil I have been through. I really felt hopeless and so lost and alone. It was a dark place. But, it can be good. I am acutely aware of my privilege. I could escape somewhere. I did not lose my job. I haven’t lost anyone to the virus. And there is still a London to go back to, and many places to explore once the chance arises.